Self-driving cars in NYC by early next year? Seriously?

Congress recently went to work on legislation to hasten the arrival of self-driving car technology and the industry is clearly taking that support to heart. Perhaps a bit too much to heart. This week it’s being reported that progress is moving at lightning speed and General Motors is getting ready to unleash a group of automated Chevy Bolts in a rather… challenging environment. In just a few months time the driverless vehicles will be hitting the roads of Manhattan.

If you’re getting a creeping feeling of distress in your stomach right about now, you’re not alone. (The Street)

General Motors Co. (GM) will test a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric cars in a five-square-mile area in Lower Manhattan early next year, making the automaker the first in its industry to test autonomous cars in New York City.

The move is a power play, aimed at asserting GM’s dominance in the race to develop accessible self-driving vehicles, the Wall Street Journal reported. It could also be a threat to New York City’s more than 13,000 taxi drivers, as autonomous cabs are largely seen replacing human drivers down the road.

Engineers are currently mapping the area where the cars will traverse, chief of GM’s Cruise Automation Kyle Vogt said. Human safety operators will be in the cars as they’re tested to collect data and take over should something go wrong.

Well, this should be just fascinating. Have any of the GM executives ever spent any time actually walking around the streets of the Big Apple? The early tests of these vehicles were apparently done in large, empty parking lots, on test tracks and then on seldom-used rural roads. After that, they did a trial run in San Francisco which seemed to go alright, though a bicycle did run into one of them there and a self-driving Uber test vehicle got into an accident. But come on, guys… this is New York City.

The fact that the Big Apple’s traffic situation is pretty much a nightmare on the best of days seems to be one reason they made the decision. Kyle Vogt, of GM’s Cruise Automation, is quoted as saying, “bad weather and more aggressive drivers will improve our software at a much faster rate.” Speaking as someone who has to travel there on business on a semi-regular basis, all I can say is that you’d better hope it improves quickly.

But have they considered the fact that there are more challenges involved in navigating Manhattan than just the weather and the other cars? The pedestrians may provide the biggest problems of all. I’m walkin’ here. Fuggedaboudit. Others have raised the same concerns. Politico reports (subscription required) that Cornell University professor Bart Selman is already warning them about “pedestrians ‘bullying’ self-driving cars.” He notes that pedestrians there usually won’t walk in front of a regular car because nobody can ever be sure if New York drivers will bother to stop. But these self-driving vehicles are slaves to their programming and will be forced to… at least in theory.

Not all of the pedestrians are friendly, or even just rude. I wonder how much of a temptation these rides will be to potential car-jackers. There’s going to be a human inside who can take control and stop the vehicle, but can they drive it away? If you try to carjack the average New Yorker by trying to stand in front of their car to stop them, there’s a fairly decent chance you’ll get run over. But the passengers in these vehicles may prove to be easy marks.

Prepare to stand clear if you’re in the city and see one of these things coming. Maybe it will all work out in the end, but I remain dubious. And don’t even get me started on the hacking question again.